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Valerie L

Hello Captain Awkward,

My situation is complicated. So I have been dating my boyfriend for over a year now. Currently we are doing long-distance because of college. He is my best friend and I love him so much, there have been no problems in our relationship except one thing- his mother. His mother has continuously been problematic since day one in our relationship. We are 22 years old and she treats him like he is 8. They have a very close relationship, she calls him probably 7 times a day, she is divorced and has three sons but my boyfriend is the only son that actually listens to her rambling phone calls. One more important detail, they moved to America from Ukraine 10 years ago and she doesn’t speak any English.

So recently, she just found out that we were having sex and that I had secretly visited him (secretly cuz she doesn’t allow me to go, worrying I’ll make him fail) because she was looking through his emails and credit card charges (she also pays for everything because he is a full time student). In response, she texted me to come over to discuss options with my boyfriend and his older brother (he is overly involved too). The two options being- get married or promise to never have sex again (she believes premarital sex is immoral). I refused to come over to talk about my sex life with my boyfriend’s mom because it is a personal matter and she sent me a very mean text about how I was being a slut/selfish.

This has been the worst it has ever got, like I said it has always been bad just getting worse. The last time she got mad was when she told me to quit college because I needed to focus on being a stay at home mother one day, but I stood up for myself and she didn’t like that. She told me that she wouldn’t welcome me into her home until I apologized. I shouldn’t have, but I was so tired of the drama so I apologized. Everyone who knows me, knows that I am amazing with moms and very well liked. I am a polite person and respectful.

My boyfriend has always agreed with me that she is difficult but he always blames it on the cultural differences and how they are more family oriented. “Family must know everything and everyone’s business.” She tells him that she will cut him off financially if he does anything to disagree with her so he feels threatened too. He does tell me that he stands up for me when I am not around and that he tries very hard to protect me. I can tell he fears he will lose me because of her. But I am so in love with him, so in love. But I cannot stand his mom anymore, I don’t know if I should break up with him. I’m so drawn.

Let me know if I can explain anything more thoroughly/clearly, I really need advice on this one. xoxo

Hello,

I like the part where you refused to drop out of college or show up to a family meeting to discuss your sex life. Let’s harness that energy and hold on tightly.

Your boyfriend’s mom will be all up in his business until he decides to set–and enforce– boundaries with her. He’s the one picking up seven rambling phone calls a day. He’s the one who let her have his email password (or who needs to figure out better security for his private communications). He’s the one making a calculated decision to stay on her good side in exchange for financial support while he finishes his education, and he’s the only one who can call her bluff if she threatens to remove financial support. And ultimately, he’s the one who needs to learn how to say, “Це не твоя справа, мамо.” (“It’s none  of your business, Mom.”) The balance of power between them won’t change until she is more afraid of potentially alienating him by behaving this way than he is of upsetting her. The process could take years if it happens at all. It does not appear to be underway.

Here is where you can set a few boundaries right off the bat:

1) Remove her access to you. How/why is this lady texting you? Have you ever actually met her? Why does she even have your number? Are you just getting walls of Ukrainian text that you have to type into Google Translate or did she do the work of typing in “ти егоїстична повія” to get to “you are a selfish slut” before she sent it? She’s not…making him…translate….? …right? Anyway, next time she texts you something insulting or bizarre, respond once with  “I’m not comfortable discussing this with you. If you have concerns, please talk directly to [your son].” You can’t control what she thinks of you or what she says, but you can control whether you reply (don’t) and whether you block her from being able to reach you (do ASAP).

Red flag check:  If he freaks out at the thought of you blocking his mom, or pressures you to maintain open communication with her, ask him and yourself: For what? Why? What does anybody get from her insulting you and trying to control your life as well as his?

2) Kick her out of your time together. How much time and energy do you and your boyfriend currently spend discussing his mom and strategizing around her? What would happen if you set boundaries with him about how often you discuss her? He’s used to confiding in you about her and you’re used to “supporting” him about this, which leaves her right where she wants to be in the middle of your relationship. What if you did an experiment by deflecting anything about her back to him? “That sounds like a conversation for you and your mom.” “I hope you and your mom can work it out so that you can stay in school.” “Hmmmm, I know she drives you up a wall, but right now it almost feels like she’s here…with us…on this date…” “I trust you to handle this however you need.” “Oh no, I’m not going to ‘sit down and have a talk’ with your mom. It sounds like you maybe need to do that at some point? But after reading her text messages, I’m all set!” Experiment and see if either of you are capable of detaching.

This would be my advice to him, by the way. I don’t judge people for having controlling parents and not figuring out healthy boundaries overnight. But if he can, he should put her on a complete information diet, stop discussing you, including “defending” you, and be very boring about the whole question of you. “Mom, I’m 22, it’s normal to have a girlfriend, stop being weird about this.” Repeat. See also: “Okay.” “If you say so.” She’s figured out that you are important to him and is using the drama of this situation to command his (and your) attention. He was canny enough to rebel and meet up with you (but not to use strong passwords), I’m sure he can summon up some teenage shrugs.

Red flag check: There’s a thread here of “women need to work out women’s business” that I don’t like. He defends you to her, but did he defend you from her by putting himself in the way? You (correctly) refused to go have a sit-down chat with his mom and his brother, but why did it even get that far? “Mom, there is no way we are summoning my girlfriend of less than a year for a family meeting. Come on.” “Mom, if I weren’t involved with [Letter Writer], I’d be dating someone else. You’re mad at me, fine, leave her out of it.” (Again, why does she even have your phone number?) A good partner would be trying to take pressure off of you instead of throwing you in the deep end.

3) No more bullshit apologies. You did nothing wrong and had nothing to apologize to for, but you gave one anyway to help keep the peace. Did it create more peace? It did not. Learn from this. There is a time and place for the “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology and this lady is at the epicenter.

Has she apologized for snooping through his shit and saying rude, insulting things to you? We all know the answer to that. Does your boyfriend feel like he has something to apologize to his mother for? File that under his business.

Red flag check: The next time she does something mean or intrusive, if he pressures you to apologize and “make peace” like you’re the one who fucked up somehow, that’s a problem.

4) Keep your distance from her. This isn’t a question of her (benevolent loving avatar of motherhood) “welcoming” you (the wayward ruin-er of god-fearing young men) into her home someday once you prove sufficiently apologetic. Why on earth would you ever go to her house after how she treated you? Why would your boyfriend ever subject you to that without making it very clear to her that either she will be kind and welcoming to you or he will soon be elsewhere? The entire prospect of you being in the same room with her seems like a “someday” question. Once everyone’s done with school and talking about getting engaged, perhaps. (Or never. Never is an option.) Good news, it sounds like she doesn’t want to interact with any girlfriend of her son’s unless he’s planning to get married, so perhaps that can be a useful way to put it off indefinitely. “Oh, your mom has made it very clear that she’s not interested in our relationship unless we’re planning to get married, why don’t we cross that bridge when we come to it.”)

Red flag check: It’s just red flags, all the way down. Something about his mother “not being able to welcome you into her home” until you apologized makes me think there is a misconception here that you can somehow win this lady over if you engage with her just right. You can’t. There is no winning her over, there is (possibly, eventually, with great effort and no guarantees) negotiating a détente that is not completely miserable. At present, while her son is dependent on her financially, she still has the illusion of control and she is clearly holding onto it with everything she has. You are a threat to her authority and control over her son. You also make a convenient scapegoat to blame for any problems she has with any of his choices. A “B” in the grade-book that should have been an “A”? Must be his girlfriend distracting him. Haircut or outfit she doesn’t like? Must be his girlfriend’s slutty taste. He answered six calls but let the seventh go to voicemail? Your influence. At best –AT BEST –for her you are a potential incubator for grandchildren she’ll try to snatch out of your arms as soon as they are born. Consider that someone who will go through her adult son’s emails to “catch” him having sex will definitely go through the nightstand drawers and the financial records in any future home you might share. This is how she speaks to you because you and your partner of nearly a year spent one weekend together (that she knows of)? Yikes. That’s not someone you can “win over.”

5) Be realistic. At best for you, should this relationship continue, is that your boyfriend eventually finds his spine and that you cultivate a combination of amused surface politeness and ironclad boundaries where his mom is concerned. (“Oh, that’s a question for your son, let me find him for you!” Can I get you a glass of water while I’m up?” “Your mom is not living with us ever. She can visit for three days, max,  and she stays in a hotel. That’s going in the prenup by the way.”) At worst, this cycle you’ve described where she intrudes and he appeases her at your expense is every holiday and family occasion and life event between now and forever. People –including people from close-knit families and “traditional” cultures–can and do negotiate this stuff all the time but the process is not pretty or short. She will not change. Will he? In time to be the partner you need?

Red flag check(s): I have a question you’ll need to ask and answer more than once and an overall dynamic to watch out for.

The question: “Say we end up living together at some point. How do you see all this working out?” Any future you plan with him needs you both to answer this honestly without wishful thinking goggles on. It sounds like he wants out from under her reign, but if Mr. Seven Phone Calls A Day sees himself buying a house next door to his mom and giving her a key, that would be good information to have. What’s his plan for finishing school and becoming financially independent? Is that his plan? Your stated truth here, that you cannot stand her and find her to be a possible deal-breaker is also good information for him to have.

The dynamic: When his mom is out of pocket, does he negotiate with you on her behalf (i.e. pressuring you to just go along with things that are not good for you for the sake of keeping the peace) or does he negotiate with her on your behalf (and his own) to carve out space and freedom for your relationship to thrive? So far it looks like he’s mostly doing the first thing. “It’s just the culture.” Okay, but it’s not your culture, and there’s a difference between respect and submitting to values that you –and two-thirds of Ukrainians according to this 2019 survey,–simply do not share. “Families know everything about each other.” Even when they blatantly violate his privacy and then use what they find to harass his girlfriend? I said before that the dynamic between your boyfriend and his mom probably will not change until she is afraid of potentially alienating him by harassing you. The dynamic between you and your boyfriend (and his mom by proxy) may not change until he understands that there are hard limits to what you will put up with. Walking away from someone you love is hard, and if it comes down to that it will feel like letting her win. But your boyfriend has choices here, the same way you do. That impulse you had to not go to that meeting? To not apologize when you hadn’t done anything wrong? To say “I’m not doing that” when she tried to dictate your future life? That part of you recognizes a trap when it sees one, and so far it’s kept you safe. Keep listening to it.

.”

Valerie L

Ahoy Captain! I

(31 she/her) am currently dating “J” (32 he/him). We’ve been dating for a little over a year now. Things are going well, except for one thing…he isn’t divorced, and I’m not sure that he wants to be. Any scripts for a conversation around that topic are greatly needed.When we began dating last year in 2022, he told me he was in the process of a divorce, and that he and his former spouse had parted ways in 2020. He told me that the former spouse ended things, and moved out in 2020. They never had any children,or owned any pets together. Their home was an apartment that they rented, so when they stopped living together, they did not have a home to sell, and the landlord rented that apartment to someone else.

I was of the understanding that the divorce would be finalized by the end of 2022…until J let me know that they still needed to file for divorce. Which threw me for a loop. I bring up that they never had kids/pets/property together, because from what I can tell, in the absence of this, shouldn’t the divorce be pretty simple? But maybe I was wrong. I’m no lawyer. So I accepted that maybe some hiccups had happened–it’s not like the legal system is that great anyhow.And then he let me know back in July they still hadn’t filed for divorce yet–but was supposedly working on it–and alarm bells went off in my head. I don’t know how to have a conversation about divorce.

I was single for a long time before meeting J, and he’s my first Serious Relationship. I’m so sad I’ve been with someone who, aside from this issue, is a great person. He makes me smile, I feel safe with him, he takes the time to call me and check on me, etc. I can say with total sincerity he is one of the most caring people I know.He was with former spouse for nine years. His home life was pretty chaotic, and he got married young partly to escape that. I don’t know what it’s like to have been with someone for nearly a decade, to grow from your teens to your late twenties with them, and then to have to figure out who you are apart from that relationship. I was sorry to hear that two of them grew apart as people, but not surprised. People often have more growing to do in their mid to late twenties, and I’ve been several marriages collapse between people who both were married before age 25.

We spend every weekend together, call each other at least weekly, have met each other’s families, traveled together, etc. My parents have asked about marriage, and I’m of the understanding his family has wondered the same. We’ve talked about trying to have kids together, and are on the same page. I could see this relationship lasting years, and I don’t feel comfortable having kids with someone outside of marriage, not because of moral ones, but because of legal logistics, such as being on the same health insurance, paid parental leave, who gets what last name, etc. How do I even approach this conversation with him? I want to be sensitive of their long history together, while also still respecting my needs. I was single for so long, I feel out of my depth. To be quite honest, I’m very insecure about that, and I’m jealous he had a partner throughout his twenties, and had the opportunity to have a wedding, and be married.

I can’t help but feel like Option B. Any advice is appreciated.

Sincerely,

Second-Best

Dear I’m Not Calling You ‘Second Best’ Even If You Named Yourself That,

Your letter is but one chapter in a very old story, where straight women are simultaneously pressured to seek marriage and children and shamed if they admit to wanting those things where anyone might hear them. Straight men in these stories tend to show up as intensive renovation projects who will be ready to “settle down” someday, it’s just that right now they are skittish wild stallions who might bolt at the first sign of anything like “human needs” or “priorities.”

The more we buy into that story, the more we end up with relationship patterns where women do a ton of work to “prove” their worth to men who may or may not have the bright idea, completely of their own volition without any prompting, to reciprocate someday. I think this is a fairly mild case*, but the reason I’m classifying your problem this way is that you are scared that talking frankly about future plans with a partner who seems to be making a lot of the same future plans will somehow “ruin” the relationship. If the relationship does not in fact survive a “Dude, when are you getting divorced?” conversation, it won’t be because your needs were silly or you asked for them wrong. For any advice I give you to actually work, we have to start here: You want to get married and have kids. You’d like to do that with J. You would prefer to start sooner rather than later. If he also wants those things to happen, then literally the least he can do is file paperwork that he’s had the last three years to do. If he doesn’t want that, waiting another year to find out is hardly in your best interest.

(*For comparison purposes, just as the sun rises and sets, we can trust that each new day will bring a new Reddit post about a recently-or-not-quite-divorced cishet man who expects endless financial and emotional support, housework, and even on-demand childcare for kids from previous relationships in the streets and offers nothing but eternal life in Casa Mojo Dojo with his Long-Term Long-Distance Low-Commitment Casual Girlfriend in the sheets.)

Since The Holidays™ are looming and we’re about to enter Year Four of him being broken-up-but-not-on-paper, I think it’s the perfect time to clarify some stuff. Start with sorting through your own fears and needs. Figure out what a good outcome looks like and what kind of boundaries and limitations you’d be comfortable enforcing. For example:

Is some of your insecurity and malaise being driven by family pressure? Is the prospect of 10,000 “So when are you crazy kids getting married?” “Hahaha I’ll let you know as soon as the divorce is final…or even filed…” conversations making you not look forward to running the imminent Celebration Gauntlet together? Is his limbo status causing you to feel like you have to lie to family members? What if you didn’t lie? Would it be better for you to fly solo this year and give him time to catch up on his paperwork and hang with his own family of origin instead of doing the Cute Couple Thing with this big missing piece still between you? (I know that feels like punishing yourself on some level, but I want you to at least think about it. When you brought him around in the past, it’s likely that you didn’t know that he was still going to be married for at least another year. Now you know. Does it change your calculus if you think about it as a respite for you from worrying about this vs. denying either of you something?)

It doesn’t sound like you live together, which is a good thing in my opinion, but are you talking about combining households, finances, DNA, etc. in the near future? Consider that if there’s been no legal separation, then it’s quite possible that your boyfriend and his ex are jointly responsible for any debts the other one incurs, listed as beneficiaries on all kinds of paperwork, and legally able to make complex medical decisions for each other in case of emergency. So maybe a bright red “Hmmm, that sounds like a great topic for after you’re divorced!” boundary needs to come into play before making any big plans. Speaking of which, if you can get pregnant, this is a great time to revisit and lock down your birth control situation so there are no accidents. Gestating Mr. Technically Still Married’s fetus is not going to make you feel more secure or in control right now.

Do you have an internal Sheelzebub Countdown running? Meaning, if you knew that this thing that makes you unhappy was unlikely to change, how much longer would you stay invested? Another six months? Another year? Longer? If you do have that internal counter running, maybe combine it with the boundary about discussing future plans, like, “Once I check in again about divorce, I’m not planning any joint vacations, purchases, family visits, merging of practical stuff with him for six months or he handles his shit, whatever comes sooner.”

Once you’ve reminded yourself of your own priorities, then I suggest being as frank as possible: “Hey, as we’re making all these plans, I’d like an update on how your divorce is coming along. As of July you still hadn’t filed, but how do things stand now?”

Where you go from there is going to depend on what he says and what you want to do about it. Once you bring it up, don’t be afraid to ask all the questions that are on your mind. (It’s not like it’s going to get less awkward, and more honesty and clarity might lead to good things).  If he hasn’t filed, why not? What is the barrier? What is his timeline and plan for resolving that? Is it financial, does it have something to do with the legal system, is it something that he needs to work out in therapy?  If they’re ‘working on it,’ what does that mean in practical terms? Is it his plan to move forward with you on stuff like marriage and kids? Does he understand that none of the stuff he talks about doing with you someday, like having kids, is remotely on the table until he handles this?

For best results, resist the urge to explain yourself. Your explanation is, “I love you, and I want to be with you and do all the great stuff we’ve talked about, but it’s hard to move forward with future plans while you’re still married to someone else.” You took a risk on him when you could have been like, “uh, I like you too, but howabout you call me after you’re all the way single” and you have nothing to prove to this guy about your open-mindedness or loyalty here. It’s been a year since you got together, and it is okay to want him to formally end his marriage before making any more promises or plans with you.You’re not being unreasonable, “nagging,” too needy, controlling, or whatever negative messages are bouncing around in your head. Don’t be afraid to swat down excuses and bad faith arguments like paper airplanes. “If it’s ‘just a piece of paper,’ and it ‘doesn’t change how you feel about me’ then it makes sense to ‘just’ file it already.” “I”m not ‘making a big deal,’ I’m telling you outright that it matters to me.” “Look, I’ve tried to be really hands off about this, but it’s definitely on my mind and I’m not a jerk for wanting an update.”

There is a risk that he will continue to stall, and if that happens you’ll have to decide what you can live with. By probing further, you may find out truths that you don’t want to. He may in truth not want to be divorced. Even if he does, he may not be on the same timeline as you are about getting married and having kids. He may be so disorganized that he’s a bad fit for you simply in practical terms. Is running the risks of big honesty and big love better than sitting with this dread and uncertainty for another year of your precious life? From here, saying “Are we really doing this? Then I need you to sort out your shit if you’re serious about being together” and potentially learning an answer you don’t want seems better than letting someone string you along, but only you can decide if that’s true for you.

Valerie L

Hi Captain!

My question isn’t life or death but it’s been on my mind. I have a group of friends whom I love very much and maybe it’s the Taurus in me but I’ve enjoyed giving them birthday/holiday gifts a lot over the years, usually small but meaningful items. Also, many times now, the group has come together to fund the purchase of a larger item for one of the friends – I’ve coordinated a few of such gifts myself (collecting from everyone, buying and wrapping the item, etc). 

My gripe is I haven’t been on the receiving end of any of the collective gifts ever since I’ve been friends with those people, even though I’ve pooled money and work into gifts for others many times. It’s also happened on several occasions that I arranged little gifts or handmade cards for everyone only to find out a few pairs of friends exchanged gifts but I wasn’t a part of any of them. 

We have a graduation coming up and one of my friends suggested we come together to buy the soon-to-be professional a good quality version of an important tool he’ll use in his new career. On one hand, I want to share in the celebration, but on the other hand, it makes me very sad and a tad resentful to think I’ll just once again participate in a thoughtful gesture that I’ve never been (and at this point might not ever be) on the receiving end of. I actually graduated myself during the pandemic and could hardly celebrate at all, which makes this all the more bittersweet.

I realize I could just opt out of this next collective gift, but everyone else is pitching in and I’m going to the graduation party – it would probably create a weird situation and I doubt my friends would get the message anyway. I think I need to say something to them, but how do I do that without being disrespectful of everyone’s finances and creating unfair pressure? Is there even a point in saying something? I feel like I’m basically saying “I don’t want to have to ask for flowers, I just want you to buy me some” but with my friends. It’s not that I absolutely want gifts, I’m just tired of feeling like no one thinks of me.

Thanks a lot Captain, 

Who Gives Gifts to Santa? (they/them)

Dear Who Gives Gifts To Santa?

Are there one or two friends within the group that you trust to a) successfully organize the logistics of a group gift in your stead and b) listen to your gripes about this without getting defensive or judging you and, c) possibly more importantly, without doing some stunt that escalates tension within the whole group? If you’re having a hard time pinpointing someone, is there someone who does a good job getting you individual gifts or, barring that, is a thoughtful gift-giver during 1:1 exchanges? The friend who suggested the most recent group gift seems like a good place to start.

What you want: To be included in everyone’s gift calculus the way you include them in yours. It’s probably more realistic to stay focused on what you want to happen from now on (vs. getting justice or guilty makeup-gifts for past omissions).

What you don’t want: To hijack your friend’s upcoming graduation gift to be All About You in a way that leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth and you still anxious and left out the next time it’s potentially your turn. A lot of times, attempting to engage the whole group about something like this ends up being the emotional equivalent of a passive-aggressive note in an office kitchen about how EVERYONE needs to make a new pot of coffee when they finish the old one (which the people who already make coffee will resent and the one person who doesn’t will go on blissfully ignoring). Which is why anytime someone writes in with a “me vs. a whole group ” social problem, I advocate starting one-on-one with the most reliable person first.

When you’ve identified your potential ally or allies, pull them aside for individual chats. This is where a phone call or in-person talk might serve you better than something that could be copied and pasted into group chats, and this is where (if you do use email) you don’t want to craft this as a response to any current gift-giving logistical threads in case of accidental forwarding.

Possible Script: “I realized that as we were organizing [New Grad’s Gift] that sometimes I forget to remind people about my own important milestones. My graduation was during the height of pandemic isolation, so I understand why celebrating wasn’t on everyone’s radar, and I’m sure a lot of people felt similarly melancholy about celebrating their own stuff alone during that time. But I don’t want to leave anyone out or be left out from now on. Since you’re also good at taking the lead on this kind of thing, could you and I make a pact that I’ll organize stuff for you and you can do it for me from now on? That way we won’t fall through the cracks.”

As for holidays, birthdays, and one-to-one gift-giving, I think when you’ve been friends for a while it’s totally appropriate to check in and say, hey, do we do the present thing for birthdays and holidays? Do we want to do it, if so is there a budget or type of present that would work best, would we rather just skip physical gifts and make plans to hang out together, etc.? Again, this is where asking people in the group who are more similar to you about organized gift-giving is probably going to yield better results. People just have different interests and capacity around this kind of thing. It’s also appropriate to notice if certain people never reciprocate your gestures and just quietly stop including them on your list from now on.

I actually love that you mentioned the common flowers conundrum, where people want to receive flowers but somehow it’s ruined if they have to ask for them. See also: Handwritten thank you notes for gifts. Birthdays where one person makes a giant deal out of birthdays hoping/assuming that other people will reciprocate and make the same kind of production when it’s their turn, but nobody does. These arguments always devolve into a “cut flowers are stupid, birthdays are stupid, postal mail is stupid, I don’t need those kinds of celebrations or gestures ergo it is irrational to expect me to provide them for other people” vs. “Yo, if it’s really important to people you care about, and it doesn’t harm you, perhaps assigning ‘most rational’ status to the one position where you never have to make an effort is not necessarily the best way.”

For people facing this advice column staple brand of problem, bottom line is, whatever your assumptions/hopes are about how a given relationship is supposed to work, whatever the lore says about good manners, if there’s something you need or want within a relationship and quietly modeling meeting that need for other people in the hopes that they’ll pick up on what you’re doing and reciprocate isn’t getting it done, you have other choices.

a) Say nothing and continue to stew in silence forever.

b) Stop doing un-reciprocated things for unappreciative people, though I would caution you that people who don’t really notice your thoughtful gestures in the first place may not receive this as the pointed message of protest or correction you intend. (There’s a reason that protests, boycotts, strikes are persistent, organized, collective actions with clear demands attached). If you let go of notions of punishment and justice or getting a particular response and view it as reclaiming your time and energy and possibly redistributing that to people who do reciprocate, it can be liberating for you, but it won’t change the other person’s views or behavior by itself.

c) Say something and give people a chance to respond and adjust. “How would you like to handle birthdays from now on? Birthdays are really important to me, so I usually prefer to do ________, is that something you could do for me? What kind of stuff do you like to do on your birthday?” “Hey, when I send you a present and I don’t hear anything back, it makes me feel like you don’t care. Well, first it makes me wonder if you even got it. Then it makes me sad. Do you want me to stop with the presents? Or could we agree on a 24-hour “thanks, I got it!” policy, even just a text?” “Hey, I love flowers and it would make me really happy if you got me flowers sometimes without being reminded or specifically asked.”

c) If speaking up doesn’t get you what you need, start looking for other ways to meet those needs and balance the relationships. Buy yourself flowers. Throw your own birthday party, and/or shamelessly remind the people you expect to care when your birthday is coming up.

My lovely Letter Writer, it sounds like maybe you need to celebrate your own graduation right now, even if it doesn’t involve the exact same kind of group gift your friend is getting. Maybe you need to buy yourself a present. Maybe you need to throw a party. Maybe that party can be a collective thing where you tell your group of friends, “Hey, everybody who had a big deal event during 2020-21 that would normally involve balloons and opening presents, let’s do Graduation, Etc. (Observed) on [date] at my house. Off the top of my head, I got my degree, [Name] gestated an entire person, [Name] got a big promotion, [Name] bought their first house, [Name] published not one but two poems, who and what am I forgetting?”

I used to* have two local friends with birthdays the same week as mine, and together we formed the A.S.A.M.A.S. (Aquarius Self-And-Mutual Admiration Society) where we gave each other elaborate birthday greetings comprised of equal parts bragging about ourselves and complimenting each other. “Birthday felicitations! I am looking amazing tonight, as are you!” “Have I told you lately that I extremely cool and that you are lucky to know me? You are also quite nifty, what a privilege it is to know each other!” “Oh my god, what a brilliant observation I just made! And your joke was the cherry on the excellent sundae of my wit!” (*Used to as in I still quite like these people, we’re just not local to each other anymore.) We played D&D and similar games together, and whatever our character sheets said we were all bards to the marrow in real life, so every meeting of the A.S.A.M.A.S. had the same goofy, over-the-top energy as ” Matt Berry reading dril Tweets” or this scene from Booksmart (except you have to imagine that everything they say to each other, they say about themselves first):

I include this anecdote to say that you’re not being whiny or ridiculous for wanting to be celebrated by the people you love as much as you celebrate them. And whatever the etiquette guides say about it being rude or needy to ask for gifts, you’re not silly for wanting validation and safety and appreciation. Stuff falls through the cracks sometimes, and we all need rituals to remind us of what’s been lost and how to put our relationships back together. Maybe those rituals can start with giving ourselves some generosity and love before we give it all away. So here’s wishing you some version of the Taurus-Thoughtful-Gift-Exchange-And-Appreciation Society before another year goes by. Possible template: “Hey, for [Insert Occasion], howabout we each get ourselves something we really want and we’ll wrap them and give them to each other, open them, and then immediately switch back so we end up with our own original gift? Then we can be like, ‘HOW THOUGHTFUL, IT’S EVERYTHING I WANTED.’ ‘YOU ALWAYS KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I NEED.’ ‘OMG I HAVE NEVER FELT SO SEEN.'” ❤

Valerie L

Announcement: the audience for these has changed, so I’m going to do them once every three or four months instead of monthly. So please come to this October one if you’re interested, there won’t be another until probably January or February.

21st October, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I have shoulder length brown hair, and will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:

Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The venue has lifts to all floors and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here:

The food market outside (side away from the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Please make sure you respect people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
  2. We have all had a terrible time for the last four years. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
  3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

Please RSVP if you’re coming so I know whether or not we have enough people. If there’s no uptake I will cancel a couple of days before.

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

Valerie L

Hi Captain! 

My best friend of over a decade and I live several states apart, and last week she and her boyfriend came to visit me and my husband. They’ve been together for nearly a year, but this is the first time I’ve really interacted with him for a long period of time.On this trip I have been confronted with the fact that they are an incredibly annoying couple to be around. They spent about 50 percent of the time we were together having one on one conversations that me and my husband were not included in, including in spaces where we couldn’t get away or do something different, like when we were all driving somewhere together. They are sugary sweet romantic — calling each other baby/dear/etc constantly, constantly complimenting each other and calling each other hot, TONS of PDA (like to the level where they will be standing next to us, totally ignoring us, and borderline making out). They both seem to be putting on a kind of weird persona with each other that isn’t their actual personality, as if they are “on their best behavior” (I can’t say for sure for him, but I got that vibe. For her, it was a weird version of her I’ve never seen before).

They were also really disrespectful of our time. For example, they cancelled an outing with us — that we had planned weeks before — as we were walking out the door to meet them, because they “wanted time alone” (this trip was allegedly to visit us?). Similarly, one night they showed up over half an hour late to our dinner reservations and didn’t apologize or text to tell us they were running late. They have big “new young couple energy,” but it’s been a year and we are in our 30s. I honestly don’t have any sympathy — I thought the whole thing was rude as hell. I didn’t say anything about it initially to my husband because I wasn’t sure if I was just being jaded, but he brought up how uncomfortable he was without me even saying anything.

We also all got dinner with a mutual friend and he texted me after to say, essentially, “what the hell was all that about?” They had pretty much ignored him for the entire dinner and only spoken to each other. When he said goodbye, they didn’t even look up from cuddling each other. I’m at a loss as to how to move forward. Frankly, I’m confused because I think that all of this (the lateness and flaking, the constant PDA, the one on one conversations in front of us) is really unlike her. She didn’t seem like herself at all, and I couldn’t believe she was treating us like this. It was also disappointing to think I was going to have a fun trip with my best friend, and instead get flaked on and ignored the whole week. I also have some light concerns about the partner. It worries me that I feel like he’s putting on a persona, and the obsessive vibe of this relationship gives me pause. I don’t know what, if anything, to say. She is head over heels in love and sure she is going to marry this man. I don’t know how to address this without putting the friendship in jeopardy. 

Thanks,

Not Feeling The Love in California 

Dear Not Feeling The Love,

My sympathies! I have been at what I thought was a gathering of friends and our various romantic partners that turned out to be two people on a hot date with the rest of us as background characters and it was ungood for all the reasons you describe. The part where it all feels like a performance is the worst for me, and it gets even worse when the new relationship energy wears off and the performative foreplay turns into performative arguing and now everyone is trapped in an amateur production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the rest of the night. It’s been a while since anyone has inflicted this particular horror on me, personally, but I well remember the glazed expressions of my fellow NPCs around the dinner table and my own internal screaming. “Where even is my friend right now? Does she know that we are here? Is this happening because we are here to see it, or are they like this all the time when they are alone? Which of those is worse to contemplate? If I slip out and go home, will they even notice? If say something, will it make it even more awkward?”

I would love to tell you that I figured out a snappy way to shut it down, obtain anything resembling accountability, or relay concerns about a relationship that required so much performance while it was still happening, but I never did. In the moment, there was always something happening under the surface that wasn’t really about me or the other bystanders. Something that went beyond being naturally demonstrative and affectionate, something that was about proving something to somebody. The nature of the “something else” varied from friend to friend, partner to partner, and setting to setting. Occasionally it felt like people who had been single for a long time while surrounded by happy couples were trying to stake their claim to something they’d felt excluded from. Other times it felt like people were picking fights in public that they didn’t feel comfortable having in private, taking advantage of safety in numbers. Troubling! Sometimes they just loved me and loved their new partner and really wanted us to love each other and to bask in validation and togetherness on all sides. If it was a matter of introducing a new partner to a group of friends, if I squint I can see it as overcompensating to make sure the partner doesn’t feel left out. Alcohol may have been involved. These are all conjecture on my part, but the worst instances shared a level of demonstrativeness and inattention to surroundings/me/other people that crossed a line, even if that wasn’t the intention, and an unfortunate tendency to double down if challenged because any attempt to wrest the couple’s attention away from each other posed a threat to whatever underlying doubt or need required that kind of proof.

Truthfully, I think your options are limited here, especially now that the trip is over. It’s like in the original Darth Vader Boyfriend post where your friend is getting something that you can’t see out of whatever this is, and she’s unlikely to want to hear anything you have to say as long as she’s still dickmatized in thrall to that thing. To be clear, I don’t think any of your concerns are misplaced, or that you aren’t within your rights to call your friend up and say, “What just happened?” or think that her partner is off-putting in the extreme.You know her better than I do, so if I’m wrong to be skeptical, definitely reach out in whatever way you think might work. “Can we talk about the trip? I was really looking forward to seeing you, but at times it felt like I was interrupting a romantic vacation with your boyfriend and other times it felt like I was watching the Best Friend-Boyfriend show. I’m so happy that you are happy, but next time can we [plan some stuff for just us][set some PDA ground rules][draw clearer lines between romance time and friend time]?” Do I think that conversation will go well? No. Does that stuff maybe need to be said anyway? You’re the only person who knows the answer to that. In the meantime, let’s discuss other options.

First, whether you and your friend hash this out or not, you’re certainly never doing that again. You can’t go back in time, but you can change how you prioritize and plan in the future. Now that know that your friend’s boyfriend cannot hang, or that she is unable to hang when they are together, or some combination of those things, you should remain leery of scheduling any double dates or group dinners or intruding on their romantic getaways in the future. Try to look at the night they cancelled “to be alone” as a gift, and use that same logic for carving out quality time for just you in the future.”Instead of everyone meeting up, why don’t you enjoy a nice date with partner tonight, and then you and I can go out tomorrow and really catch up?” “Why don’t you and me just go for a long weekend somewhere, no boys allowed?” And if you ever do end up in the same situation again, hopefully at least you and the other flabbergasted dining companions will  be more equipped next time around to embrace side conversations and tag-team on the occasional “Get a room, you two!” “Is this a private conversation or can anybody join?”

That’s what I did to maintain friendships while minimizing my own exposure to any Dinner-And-A-Show dynamics. I enthusiastically planned things and RSVP’d to anything where it was just me and my friend(s), and absented myself from anything that wasn’t. That became the new default setting, with rare exceptions for special events like birthdays and weddings where putting my foot down to make a point would make me the jerk. I figured I can get along with almost anyone for a couple of hours, and maybe after repeat exposure some of the novelty of “Nobody Has Ever Been This Much In Love Before!” would wear off and everyone could chill out. Other times, I hid behind wanting advice about my own personal stuff or arranging activities I knew that the partner would absolutely hate* to try to carve out a little privacy. And I thought a lot about venues that set everyone up for a good time. If booze or other substances repeatedly brought out the worst in certain people, then I would plan to see them when everyone was more likely to be sober. Since I’m a person who doesn’t really enjoy altered states, I could blame it entirely on myself and my own preferences. I need an early night. I would rather do lunch than dinner. Order whatever you want, but I’m not drinking today.

After seeing the same cycle repeat itself more than once, I also learned to give it time. Even if I was annoyed and felt ignored at times, I wasn’t going to end important friendships over this. Over time either a person I loved would be so happy that I could ignore the occasional oxytocin chemical spill for their sake, or they would break up with the human velcro and it wouldn’t be a problem anymore. I also learned that even if I spotted red flags correctly, if led with judgment and advice when my friends were head-over-heels and thought things were good, they would be less likely to come to me when things were bad. So I tried very hard to let go of the need to be right about their lives and focus on my own boundaries. I didn’t have to argue or fix anything. As long as I could engineer hangouts where my friends and I could be fully present with each other most of the time, then their romantic dynamics could be their business most of the time.

When conflicts arose, I tried to find something honest I could say that kept the focus on myself and not an implied judgment of the relationship or my friend. “It seems like you never want to do anything with me and Partner!” “That’s fair! I get to see you so little as it is, so when I do I selfishly want you all to myself.” “But I do stuff with you and Mr. Awkward all the time!” “That’s true! But if you ever want to hang with just me, I’m happy to set that up.” (I left out the part where he and I don’t wear each other like a sweater when we go to restaurants.) Sometimes a more direct challenge arose, something that teetered close to truths that nobody wanted to admit. Trouble is, I can’t not admit those things once someone says them out loud, so I aimed for a breezy joking-but-definitely-not-joking assent. “You’ve never liked Partner!” “If you say so! I do know that you tend to be pretty caught up in each other, and I’d rather not intrude on any more of your dates.” “We’re not like that! You just don’t want me to be happy!” “Sure, that must be it. Anyway, let me know if you, singular want to grab breakfast tomorrow.”

I don’t know if any of this is helpful as advice, but you definitely have my commiseration and hope that things will get easier over time.

*Incidentally, the 2004 micro-budget horror film Fear of Clowns **which is at this link you should NOT click** is terrible, and I don’t recommend it unless you can cackle through it with your best friend while her terrible (now-ex) boyfriend hovers in doorway of the room you’re watching it in for 106 minutes straight, fuming about how bad it is even though you both told him ‘yes, we are watching bad movies on purpose’ and ‘you will definitely hate this’ and ‘we rented it to watch together, there is no need for you to stick around’ but his rarified media tastes and even more intense FOMO simply will not allow him to either sit down or leave and do something he enjoys instead. The more we laughed at this convoluted tale of a homicidal clown named Doug who never wears shirts and only refers to himself in the third person (“Doug take murder van?”), the more he fumed. The more outraged he became, the funnier it was. Someone so transparently pathetic should have been way more used to the derisive cackling of women, in my opinion, but I’m sure the seventeen years since I last saw his squinched-up rageface and flaring nostrils have afforded multiple opportunities for growth on that front. Cheers to a complete toilet!

**You clicked the link, didn’t you. And you glimpsed “Doug” in all his shirtless not-glory. Well, now you know. Happy almost-Halloween!

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